Photo courtesy of Louis from Pexels
By March of 1988, the mighty suburban movie palaces of Huntsville were all dead. It was bad enough they were gone, but circumstances aggravating their demise would stoke years of smoldering rage among Rocket City movie buffs.
In the early 70s, movie chains were scaling down in response to a consequence – presumably unintended – of the the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rating system.
In 1968, the MPAA introduced its now-familiar rating system. Prior to the MPAA’s G, M, R and X ratings, the standards of decency for television and films, were essentially identical. Now, movies came with ready-made labels to identify fare that was unsuitable for children. With remarkable speed, content became available on the big screen that had never been available on the small one and, exhibitors reasoned, never would be.
When all features were effectively rated G, an evening at the movies was a family affair. The kiddies might get restless sitting through “Dr. Zhivago,” but they were no more likely to encounter depictions of nudity, sex, violence or foul language than they would tuning in to “Captain Kangaroo.”
In 1967, though, one of the top money-makers of the year was “Bonnie and Clyde,” which handily earned its R rating. In 1969, “Midnight Cowboy” received an X rating, and later, a nomination for best picture of the year. Other top money-makers of the decade were patently adult fare, including “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” rated R, and “Valley of the Dolls,” receiving the now-defunct GP rating.
Opening in December of 1970, near the intersection of University and Sparkman Drive, the Trans-Lux Twin, proudly advancing itself as “Huntsville’s newest and 1st twin theatre,” was ahead of the curve. The math was clear: If you can’t sell 800 tickets to “The Sound of Music,” sell 400 to “The Love Bug,” and 400 to “Easy Rider.”
The Trans Lux’s blue and gold theaters shared a ticket booth, a compact lobby and a snack bar. The operation strove for such efficiency and space-saving that it felt like something aboard a submarine.
However, there was no such attention to detail or aesthetic sensibility in the catastrophe to befall the Alabama, the Westbury and the Madison: a movie theater practice known as “twinning.”
The Westbury was the first to be bisected, with a grand re-opening in December of 1976. The ignominy of the desecration was reflected in the marquee. The alternating red-and-white rhombi of the CINERAMA logo were altered to read, “CINEMAS.” They even left the terminal rhombus in place but painted over — just to rub it in.
The Alabama was halved in 1981, and as local historian Charles Van Bibber observes, with the fissure of the Madison, came “the death of the ‘big screen’ in Huntsville.”
Not every twinning was a disaster. Sixty miles north, in downtown Shelbyville, Tennessee, the diminutive Capri theater created a second auditorium by enclosing its rarely used balcony. To better exploit the cozy new space, long before stadium seating came into vogue, unusually steeply raked seats were employed. The Capri is looking a little shopworn these days, but is still showing first run movies.
In Huntsville, though, the indignities ground on. It wasn’t bad enough that cinderblock walls had turned magnificent movie temples into wind tunnels. In another case of cruel mockery, half the seats in each twinned theater faced the wrong way.
Twenty years earlier, sweeping rows of seats had been precisely attuned to face the direct center of the screen. With the coming of the wall, the geometry of the spaces was corrupted. Inboard seats along the new wall were reoriented to compensate, but seats along the original, outer wall remained in their original position, facing the center of a screen that no longer existed. The seats that actually faced the new screen always filled up first, so latecomers could count on experiencing mild-to-moderate neck strain for the next couple of days.
Even in these dark times, though, there were glimmers of light. The University Four opened in June of 1977, just in time to exhibit “Star Wars.” A nondescript building in the middle of what seemed a disproportionately large parking lot, the University was unique for the layout of its theaters. While only seating around 200, they were unusually wide for their depth, so the overall experience was refreshingly undissapointing. As the U-4 became the U-6 in 1982, the multiplex movement was coming into full swing.
Exhibitors were learning: More screens meant more showings, more tickets and more concession sales. The economics were inescapable. But in pursuing the multiplex’s seductive efficiencies of scale, the movie business would somehow manage to forget about the movies.
With no cinemas in Huntsville left to twin, movie buffs had reason for hope. Surely, by now, the worst was behind us. Silly movie buffs! They were just getting started.
To be continued …